Farmers Struggle to Reap the Harvest of Revolution

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An Egyptian farmer collects the cotton harvest at a farm in al-Massara village near the Nile delta city of Mansura, north of Cairo. (Photo: AFP - Khaled Desouki)

By: Serene Assir

Published Saturday, January 21, 2012

Almost one year after the revolution, Egyptian farmers still suffer from the effects of bad planning, exploitation, marginalization and corruption. But they are now more organized and ready to stand up for their rights.

Cairo – His hands hardened by years of work in the fields of the Egyptian village of Aziza, Mohammed Haggag’s bright blue eyes shone through lines of weariness on his sun-tanned face.

Offering tomatoes, eggs and home-made cheese at his cramped family home about 120 km northeast of Cairo, Haggag tells me that none of the demands by Egypt’s farmers have yet been met by the state. “The problems we had before the revolution are still there. Nothing has changed yet,” he said.

Appart from vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers, Haggag’s family grew staples such as cotton, rice and wheat.

“We farmers are the backbone of the Egyptian state,” Haggag said. “But for years we have suffered the effects of corruption and bad planning. That is not only detrimental to us: it is against the interests of all Egyptians.”

Among the issues affecting Haggag and millions of other small farmers were a shortage of state-subsidized fertilizers, which were often resold on the black market at high prices.

“While factories sell 50kg of fertilizer to the state at LE30 ($4.97), we end up paying at least LE150 ($24.85) for the same amount,” said Haggag. “That is because the system is endemically corrupt.”

He accused employees of state-backed local cooperatives of embezzlement. “The factories do not produce enough, and local employees do not sell all of the fertilizer they receive,” Haggag said.

“Instead, they sell part of it to black market merchants, who play with the prices at will. Corruption is not only at the higher level of government: it is at every level.”

Another chronic problem described by Haggag was the lack of clean water, including state failure to fulfil its responsibility to do annual maintenance work on irrigation channels.

“We have to pay for the cleaning and maintenance ourselves, even though this should be covered by our 60LE ($9.94) annual irrigation tax,” said Haggag.

“Worse still, the water allocated for irrigation in Daqahliya is often sewage water from Cairo and Alexandria,” he added. “Even the country’s golf courses get cleaner water than we do.”

According to Haggag, seeds were also deficient while farmers have not been provided with the necessary amount of reliable seeds to plant for a good harvest.

“Farmers can’t get enough seeds for our crops from state-subsidized seed factories,” he said. “Again, we are forced to resort to the over-priced black market to stay afloat. Otherwise, we can’t produce enough to survive.”

The land controversy: A history of deprivation and struggle

Until the 1952 revolution, peasants constituted the largest and poorest economic class in Egypt. They lived in serf-like conditions, scraping a living off daily wages working on landowners’ farms.

But in the 1950s and 1960s, major land reforms were instituted, with law 178/1952, for instance, prohibiting the ownership of more than 200 feddans (84 hectares). This inevitably turned landowners against the reform after large swathes of land were seized from them.

By the end of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, about 17 percent of Egypt’s agricultural land had been redistributed to small farmers, while tenancy rates were brought under control and lease periods extended.

Incomplete though it was, land reform was halted under assassinated President Anwar Sadat, and fully reversed under ousted President Hosni Mubarak. In 1992, law 96 was passed, removing the safety nets provided by law 157/1952. The prohibition on the eviction of tenants was lifted, as was the fixing of rent at seven times the value of land tax.

According to the Cairo-based Land Center for Human Rights (LCHR), between 1992 and 2005 yearly tenancy rates increased by 20 times. From 1997 to 2003, in spite of resistance known as the Peasants’ Intifada (intifadat al-fallahin), almost one million small farmers were evicted from their plots.

Forced eviction often involved the intervention of the state security apparatus. According to the LCHR, in 1997 alone around 100 farmers were killed and 1,000 injured. Arbitrary arrests, beatings and clampdowns on attempts at setting up independent unions or NGOs to represent farmers were systematic.

As with the country’s industrial workers, the 25 January 2011 revolution saw civil disobedience by farmers across the country come to a head once again.

Part of the change involved farmers taking their plots of land back from businesses that had worked, usually with the state’s direct collaboration, to evict them.

“In February 2011, farmers who had been forcefully evicted from their plots in at least three villages in the Beheira and Fayoum governorates organized to get their land back,” said Karam Saber, LCHR director.

Renewed confidence: Collective action to take the power back

The number and power of independent unions has grown in recent years, in spite of a continuing government refusal to accept their legitimacy.

Renewed confidence in collective, grassroots action was among the revolution’s key outcomes, said farmer and independent union activist Saber Abdel Ghani at a meeting organized by LCHR in Cairo.

“We are setting up an independent union in Deligat village, Beheira,” said Abdel Ghani. “Our goal is to establish ways for farmers to have their voices heard by those in power and to actively propose solutions to our problems.”

Held on January 11, the meeting saw a passionate debate break out between farmers and Mohamed Shehata, general director at the Ministry of Agriculture’s office for Egypt’s directorates.

Sitting in for Minister of Agriculture Ayman Farid Abu Hadid, Shehata insisted that “we are all citizens of Egypt, and we should not talk of unions. We are here representing ourselves, neither ministries nor unions.”

Shehata also made other similarly scandalous statements at the meeting, including: “We all did our share of stealing under the former regime, not just (former Minister of Agriculture) Yousef Wali. And if you didn’t steal, at least you took part by staying silent in the face of corruption.”

One female attendee confidently responded to Shehata’s statement saying: “If we opened our mouths you would get State Security to shut us up.”

More broadly, farmers attending the meeting voiced their concerns without the fear of state retaliation that once acted as a barrier between Egypt’s marginalized and their potential for action.

“We believe that independent unions are necessary, or else the state and the businesses will continue to exploit and rob us,” said Abdel Ghani. Regardless of whether Shehata was willing or not to hear out the new independent unions’ representatives, the farmers remained committed to developing their capacity for collective negotiation.

Clear the system of corruption and thugs

Challenges ahead for farmers like Abdel Ghani and Haggag were complex and numerous. They involved corruption, bad planning and aggressive tactics by major agricultural businesses to continue to seize small farmers’ lands.

“Inadequate laws passed under Mubarak remain in place,” said Abdel Ghani. “We are ready to wait and see what happens under the new parliament, but if it fails to deliver justice, we will return to Tahrir Square.”

Abdel Ghani added that he believed the revolution had gone some way in restoring dignity for Egypt’s rural inhabitants, but that they had yet to see real change happen. “Democracy is not a theory,” he said. “Either we see its benefits on the ground, or we will simply need to keep pushing.”

Meanwhile, corruption at the local level meant that “we need a major clean-up of all institutions, not just higher government,” said Haggag. “So long as local government and cooperative employees continue to divert funds, and so long as we are unable to organize into efficient, independent unions, we will remain marginalized.”

And while violence against small farmers was once a thing of the state security apparatus, companies now employ thugs to evict farmers, said the LCHR’s Saber. Haggag agreed, adding that “the presence of thugs in our village is a new phenomenon. We are seeing not only land seized by thugs employed by international companies, but also for arable land to be built on.”

Shehata attributed current problems to the fact that ever since the revolution, the country has been “out of control.”

“We don’t know whose fault it is any more that things aren’t working. We will need to take reform step by step,” he added.

“We believe that Egypt, which was once Africa’s bread basket, should have a rich, self-sufficient agricultural sector,” said Haggag. “Right now, Egypt relies on bad quality imports for our staples. Everything needs to be reviewed, and farmers’ voices should be heard out.”

Egypt was the world’s largest wheat importer in 2010, according UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics. “I want Egyptians to enjoy true food security,” said Haggag, echoing the revolutionary desire of millions.

“As things stand, we rely on imports, while we farmers are made to bear the brunt of corruption and bad policy,” he added.

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